Kathleen De Ridder, Coordinator of 'TrefMedia' Meeting Point for Media in Diversity (Belgium)

14 April 2009

Interview in Dutch

1. What role should the media play in promoting diversity and social cohesion in Belgium?

Media play an important and special role in society. Of the Belgian population, 10% has an ethnic-minority background in some way, but this is not reflected in our media at all. Both on and behind the screen, they are badly represented. The Forum of Ethnic and Cultural Minorities demands a proportionate representation of ethnic-cultural minorities on every level dealing with the media - viewers, readers, listeners but also program designers, journalists and news managers. Media should do more to display the 10% of the population, both in audiovisual as in the written media. This is not only a matter of social justice but also and more importantly a matter of accurate reporting.

2. Should the media act as a 'responsible partner' in an increasingly multicultural environment?

In the 1970's, there was the idea that media should act as a responsible father. This plea is now considered old fashioned or reactionary. Indeed, the proverb 'it used to be better' needs to be put in perspective as the former media merely used to give the floor to political groups and parties. Nowadays, our media have become big companies where the commercial way of thinking prevails on the responsibility toward society. But one could ask himself whether this commercialism hasn't gone too far. Selling newspapers remains something totally different than selling yoghurt or sport shoes.

3. How would you respond to the complaint that freedom of speech allows extremists too great an access to the media?

Media can not escape from being blamed for this. In the end it is the media which gives a forum to extremists. They prefer extreme voices screaming out loud to serene debates. This has often less to do with freedom of speech than with a preference for sensationalism. Media like strong black-and-white formats.

Of course freedom of speech is of extreme importance. But there's also another aspect and that's respect. Having the freedom to say certain things doesn't necessarily mean that you also need to do so. Communication should always bring people closer to one another, not create more distance. The question to be asked is whether we are all better off if freedom of speech implies being allowed to say harsh things to each other. It is an important balance exercise because the border between freedom of speech and other freedoms is never really clear.

4. How would you respond to the general criticism that the media is closed to ethnic minorities?

Of course they are closed! I already mentioned that one in ten of the Belgian population can hardly be found in the media. And there are other statistics: Of the 2500 Flemish professional journalists, only one percent has foreign roots.

Media are closed to ethnic minorities in several ways. Program designers show a certain lack of interest to create programs around this theme. This is a shame because you can do a lot with this subject if you're creative. Moreover, the editorial staff still holds up a big 'white' status-quo. They assume that the reader, viewer or listener has a Belgian background but that is not true. In our cities, 30 to 40% of youngsters belong to an ethnic minority. Journalists should take this more often into account. This fact turns the media into unattractive employers. A lot of journalists with foreign roots have the feeling they can not do what they would like to do in the current white media companies, causing most of them to quit very quickly.

5.How would you respond to the complaint that media reporting of ethnic communities is generally unfavourable?

The existence of one-sided, negative and stereotyped reporting on ethnic minorities is confirmed by scientific research. In 1993 the first research on reporting on ethnic-cultural minorities in newspapers and television news was conducted and the results were very clear: Ethnic minorities are depicted in negative backgrounds like crime, poverty, city empoverishment and problems in society.

Unfortunately, most of these conclusions are still true nowadays. Especially news and documentaries produce a one-sided negative and steretyped picture of ethnic-cultural minorities. After 9/11 the problems of reporting on Islam have been added. The whole hysteria on Islam has certainly been created by the way the media dealt with this topic. The consequences of all these negative reportings for our society have been continuously underestimated. The divide between groups in the population only gets bigger like this and that's a benefit to nobody.

Still some things have changed for the better. As such, the appearance of minority spokespersons, sports people and cultural figures has increased. Unfortunalely, this is thanks to the increased participation in society of ethnic-cultural minorities and not to the efforts media have made.

6. What steps could be taken to encourage more ethnic minorities into the media?

There is no miracle solution to this problem. I can only say that it's a shared responsibility. It is important that young people from minority backgrounds choose for an education giving access to a job in the media, but also the media should make some efforts.

Some concrete projects already exist to encourage more ethnic minorities into the media workforce. The most famous one is the 'Diversity Cell' of the VRT, the Flemish national broadcast channel. This Diversity Cell organises 6-month paid internships every year for talent from other ethnic minorites. Some of these ex-trainees are now employed at the VRT as journalists or programme designers. But media companies should also make it more attractive for them to want to work there, meaning they should open themselves up for another way of thinking than the 'white' one. A lot of these program designers are creative people who get their inspiration from the environment they live in. For people from ethnic minority backgrounds, this environment and how they see it is slightly different. Of course this shouldn't be exaggerated: ethnic origine is just one aspect of a personality, just like age, sexe or education. But still nobody likes it when part of his identity is erased. It is time the media companies question their own white status-quo.

7. How has the media been changed by the development of Belgium into a multi-cultural society?

In order to understand the current media, you need to realise that in the first place, they are commercial players who want to make profit.

Quality journalism is expensive and doesn't bring in the quick and easy money, while you can have a lucrative business model with general and cheap news. But that general and quick news about intercultural matters often results into reporting intercultural conflicts. This way, journalists too often score scoops on the back of people from minority groups.

More and more, persons from minority backgrounds can be seen in tv fiction, especially in entertainment programs or series. But also there, a lot of work still needs to be done. There should be more programmes on which people with an ethnic minority background cooperated and in which intercultural themes are dealt with in a relaxed way. You can reach this goal through humour for example. Laughing together could ease a lot of tensions.

8. What measures still need to be taken by media organisations to adapt to Belgium 's multi-cultural environment?

It is extremely important to keep the debate on the media's social responsibility alive. Today, a lot of media producers confirm their social responsibility but in practice, other rules prevail: scoring scoops, being faster than the competition or producing as cheap as possible. The debate on social responsibility happens less. Journalists and their chief editors should do this, but also the owners of the media companies should get involved in this debate.

Other actors also play an important role. Journalism education has improved but the education itself doesn't answer the question of power and responsibility of journalism in a multicultural society. Also the government could give the example both in its communication and as an employer, or by temporarily supporting media products that treat interculturality in a non-stereotyped way.


Top of page